Thanks to all the farms across the state and an absolutely killer Saturday farmers market, Wisconsin’s capital has long had a reputation as a great Midwestern food city. Over the past couple of years, the reasons to visit Madison have extended beyond the Dane County Farmers' Market—there are many new restaurants and bars (including one from Chicago ex-pats), craft beer and great happy hour deals (we love you, Wisconsin!). Most of our picks are clustered around the capital building, so book a hotel around there and you can walk to most places. Here’s where to eat and drink on your visit to Madison this summer.
RECOMMENDED: Weekend getaways from Chicago
The cozy bistro is only open for breakfast, lunch and brunch, and it’s an ideal spot to fuel up for the day. A daily sweet, like a muffin or scone, from Marigold’s (118 S Pinckney St) bakery case is a must, as is the duck confit hash or breakfast sandwich, with a fried egg, bacon, tomato and cheddar-spiked boursin layered on ciabatta.
Graze (1 S Pinckney St) offers a great view of the imposing capital building from its huge front windows, but that’s not the only reason to visit the pub, a sister to L’Etoile, a higher-end (and also terrific) restaurant next door. Start by grazing your way through the snack menu—the warm soft pretzel, served with housemade mustard and soft Widmer’s cheese, and the pickle board, with tiny servings of pickled daikon, kimchee, escabeche, beets, cucumbers and a seasonal pickle, are ideal for sharing—before getting a sandwich or burger. Graze focuses on Wisconsin farmers and the menu accommodates special diets. Dishes are marked dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian, and many others can be modified to suit your needs.
You’ll want to get to Forequarter (708 E Johnson St) early—we easily snagged bar seats when we arrived at 5pm, but by 5:30, there was a wait of several hours. While the wait was worth it (and you can kill time over cheap beers at Caribou Tavern, a dive across the street), you’ll want to spend as much time at Forequarter as you can. The space is dark and rustic, with a taxidermied bear leaping out of the wall and old photos providing ambiance for the seasonal menu, which changes constantly. Forequarter is part of Underground Collective, a group of friends who also run a catering business and butcher shop and make charcuterie. You can try their meats as part of the charcuterie board, and you’ll also find salads, pastas and a thoughtful cocktail list, with a daily gin and tonic and bottled cocktails.
Tempest Oyster Bar
On my most recent visit to Madison, I discovered something wonderful that we're missing in Chicago: happy hour. How I’d missed it on prior visits, I don’t know, but you’ll want to spend a couple hours at Tempest Oyster Bar (120 E Wilson St). Monday through Friday from 4-7pm, get oysters for $1.50, shrimp cocktail for $2, plus other snacks, and $1 off tap beer, $3.50 rail drinks and $6 specialty cocktails.
Merchant (121 S Pinckney St), a much-lauded place for cocktails in downtown Madison, is another happy hour option. From 3–6pm Monday through Friday, you’ll get $2 off well-made classic cocktails and craft beers, which translates to a $7 sazerac, $6 old fashioned and beers that cost just a few dollars. You can snack, too, with fried cheese curds, charcuterie from Underground Meats and a burger available all afternoon.
You'll find two former Chicagoans at the new Heritage Tavern (131 E Mifflin St): chef/owner Dan Fox (Everest, Spring) and bartender Grant Hurless (Drawing Room), who’s responsible for the Malört Thing, a daily changing Jeppson’s Malört cocktail. The menu also includes the Drawing Room Manhattan. If you’re on vacation to escape Chicago, try the Angostura Sour, a frothy angostura-heavy cocktail made with egg, two dashes of Smith & Cross rum and lime.
The brewery (2002 Pankratz St), which expanded in 2012, has a big two-floor taproom, so grab seats and order a flight. For $15, you can sample six beers. Some of Ale Asylum’s brews are available in Chicago, but there are many more you can only try at the taproom. I like the Satisfaction Jacksin, a hugely hoppy double IPA, and Happy Ending, a Belgian Abbey Ale, one of the stronger beers at 7.7% ABV.
When you need a last drink before heading back to your hotel, go to Genna’s (105 W Main St). The dive, which is cluttered with Wisconsin décor, is open for happy hour from 4:30-6:30pm Monday through Friday, when you can get 40 percent off rail drinks and selected tap beers, but it’s even livelier at night, when there are occasional DJs. You’re only in Wisconsin for a brief time: You'd better order a New Glarus.